Tuesday, February 13, 2007

User Control Balanced With User Capability

In the new economy it seems like giving users more and more control is the way to enrich the user experience. Although mostly applicable to software, I feel that this is happening in many business outside of software, but often users find out that more control isn't exactly what they need.

In our business we just started a new development sprint that includes the start of some new functionality that we have been hashing through for a few weeks now. Its not a technical problem but a business problem, where we are trying to build functionality meant to handle the needs of different types of users through a single model. The architecture to support the model wasn't near as difficult as trying to determine the most effective business model and whether or not the model would/will work for our customers since there are no existing frameworks in this space.

A post by Kathy Sierra entitled How Much Control Should Users Have sums up much of our more recent conversations along with efforts to strike a balance between over-engineering and flexibility to handle different user needs. Its a great post which I encourage you to read, but a key take away for me was the following summary statement:

So we should be trying to give users more capability and control...and encouraging them to take it. But we must balance that with the learning they need to take that responsibility without being overwhelmed.

Like everything else, it all comes back to user education. The more we help them learn and improve, the more control they can handle... and appreciate. By putting the user first, it's our job to give them the responsibility they want, but only when we know they're ready to handle it.

This is exactly what we are facing - this balance between building functionality that will enable them to feel empowered and control, but also not confuse the heck out of them when their first see it. In our case we have had numerous discussions about how to help ease users during their transition. Some of the items we came up with in a short brainstorming session were the following:

  1. online help driven by user wants over forced usage (similar to how turbo tax works where they explain what a function will do, and then asks you if you need this, and want to know more)
  2. interactive demo/help to walk them through actual business scenarios - not technical functions
  3. building the application so that the user is not required to use the feature to get up and running.
  4. have the application do some of the work by default until they are ready to take more control on their own.

Its not the results here that are important - its the practice of actively going through this exercise. I feel that the same type of exercise can and should be performed in all businesses - especially services based business. We often assume that the user is always right and/or wants full control over decisions, but there is a difference between being empowered and being in control. If they wanted full control they likely wouldn't not have hired you in the first place.

Think about your users and different needs they may have so that you can strike the right balance between control and capability, and how you can recognize traits associated with these needs to ensure the highest level of value to your user/customer.

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